College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #416 to #414

416. Eric Clapton, Just One Night (1980)

The Nippon Budokan Theater, located in Tokyo, Japan, had a sterling reputation as a venue conducive to live recordings. Bob Dylan made a live album there, as did, more famously and more lucratively, Cheap Trick. Eric Clapton’s management decided it was time for him to take his turn. In the years since Clapton’s previous live album, E.C. Was Here, he’d released several of the bigger solo hits of his career. On the tail end of a tour swing through the Far East, following stops in Thailand, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, Clapton was booked into Budokan. Producer Jon Astley later reported that Clapton’s manager, Robert Forrester, kept the recording a secret from the guitarist, fearing he would become self-conscious, compromising the quality of the show. On the basis of what appears on Just One Night, a little added tension might not have been the worst thing.

In typical fashion, Clapton plays with pinpoint precision and blasé soullessness. “Early in the Morning” is exhaustingly limp, and recent hit “Lay Down Sally” is softened to a mushy bit of light swing. “Wonderful Tonight” is cloying to begin with; slowed down further, it’s even more excruciating. There are few more damning illustrations of Clapton’s approach than those instances where he takes on a blues classic, such as “Worried Life Blues,” which sapped of all energy, edge, and feeling. Compare the Just One Night rendition to Big Maceo Merriweather’s earthy original version, and it becomes clear how much of value is stripped away when Clapton’s imposes his veneer of British refinement to the musical form he supposedly reveres. Regrettable as the languid takes on these songs might be, it’s arguably worse when Clapton and his crew jolt in the other direction, as on the frenetic performance of “After Midnight.”

There are moments on the double-live album when Clapton betrays a little quickening of his pulse. “If I Don’t Be There By Morning,” a song co-written by Bob Dylan song, is a scrappy improvement upon the studio version included on Clapton’s album Backless. He sounds a touch more lively on “Blues Power,” and seems to respond to the crowd’s enthusiasm by toughening up the otherwise embarrassing druggie paean “Cocaine.” None of these better tracks exactly crackle, but they are a step above the sleepy trudges elsewhere on Just One Night.

415. Joe Jackson, Body and Soul (1984)

When Joe Jackson stepped into the studio to make Body and Soul, he was in a very best-of-times-worst-of-times place. Jackson’s 1982 album, Night and Day, was his long-forecasted commercial breakthrough, logging strong enough sales to reach the Top 10 all over the world and yielding a pair of hit singles, “Steppin’ Out” and “Breaking Us in Two.” Around the same time, Jackson was recruited to write the music for the movie Mike’s Murder, but much of the material he developed was ultimately rejected by director James Bridges and the other filmmakers in favor of a more traditional score from John Barry, the go-to composer for James Bond flicks. A soundtrack album featuring Jackson’s work, released roughly six months before the movie, was greeted by record buyers with only marginal interest.

Body and Soul, then, was Jackson’s opportunity to reassert himself as a burgeoning music star, bringing refined songwriting craft to classic pop stylings. He took the jazz-adjacent classiness of “Steppin’ Out” and expanded on it, which has some less appealing results. “Not Here, Not Now” is maybe too withdrawn into tender jazz-club crooning, and both “Loisaida” and “Heart of Ice” splash around in the tepid puddles of fusion. When Jackson tries out a salsa beat, on “Cha Cha Loco,” it comes across as awkward appropriation rather than inspired exploration.

The peaks of Body and Soul, though, are towering. The punchy pop of “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)” stands with the strongest efforts in Jackson’s formidable songbook, and “Be My Number Two” uses a lovely melody to smuggle in prickly, emotionally complicated lyrics (“And if you got something to say to me/ Don’t try to lay your funny ways on me/ I know that it’s really not fair of me/ But my heart’s seen too much action”). “Happy Ending,” a duet with Elaine Caswell, is one of those Jackson songs that puts it all together, delivering an ingenious pop arrangement with verve and attitude.

Body and Soul was a solid performer for Jackson, though it failed the duplicate the commercial appeal of Night and Day. It pointed the way to the career Jackson would have from there on in: little more than cult appeal with a subset of especially erudite adherents ready to expound at length on his uncommon talent. If that professional existence doesn’t put all that many gold records on the wall, it’s not such a bad place to ply one’s trade.

414. The Golden Palominos, Blast of Silence (Axed My Baby for a Nickel) (1986)

When noted avant-garde drummer Anton Fier started the Golden Palominos, it was generally understood to be a temporary band to allow him to explore his musical ideas in the studio. Fier assembled fellow musicians who were handy and served as demanding band leader until a full album was committed to tape. By the time of Blast of Silence (Axed My Baby for a Nickel), the third album billed to the Golden Palominos, it was starting to seem like a real band, albeit one with a dynamic lineup apart from Fier. There was a sense of continuity started to take form, including the suggestion that each album was a distinctive statement rather than an assemblage of parts.

In that context, Blast of Silence is often considered the Golden Palominos’ attempt to dip into country rock, mostly because the album opens and closes with covers of songs that first appeared on Little Feat’s self-titled 1971 debut, one of the unassailable classics of the form for wise, discerning music fans. While there’s plenty of yearn and twang in the crannies of the album, Blast of Silence comes across as more of a general reflection of the solidifying college rock scene in the mid–nineteen-eighties. “Diamond,” a song written by Peter Holsapple, is like an attempt to record the quintessential example of left-of-the-dial tunefulness.

The album uses the band’s previous trick of circling different lead vocalists to the center microphone, including Matthew Sweet on the somewhat wan “Something Becomes Nothing” (Sweet also cowrote the song, and it has some of the softened tang of his early solo work, before he learned to put a little muscle into his playing), and Jack Bruce on “(Something Else is) Working Harder,” which sounds like the result if Pere Ubu recruited John Hiatt to handle their songwriting duties. But the album belongs to Syd Straw, a singer brought on board for the prior Golden Palominos album, Visions of Excess. With rich, evocative vocals and elegant phrasing, Straw is magnetic on the previously noted “Diamonds” and the fulsome “Angels.” She also draws the assignment for the pair of Little Feat covers — “I’ve Been the One” and “Brides of Jesus” — demonstrating that she could have become the definitive outside interpreter of Lowell George’s songwriting, just as Linda Ronstadt regularly transformed Warren Zevon tunes.

“I play music to breathe,” Fier told Spin magazine not long after Blast of Silence was released. “Not to be clever or to satisfy someone else’s urge to be correct. I don’t care, I exist for my own sense.”

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

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